They say that you should judge a man by the company he keeps – and so, when Alan Shearer makes his return to Newcastle United this afternoon, it might be worth considering the men either side of the Geordie hero as he trots up the steps into St James' Park once more. Shearer is perceived as dull and wooden by many but those who know Shearer well know a different individual – and by having Iain Dowie and Paul Ferris alongside him, Shearer is making an immediate statement.
Shearer left school in Gosforth in 1986, aged 16, to become an apprentice footballer at Southampton. He had one CSE – in English – and no interest in academia. When he sits down with Dowie and Ferris to discuss the immediate future at a football club seemingly hell-bent on hysteria, Shearer will be talking to an engineering degree student in Dowie and in Ferris a qualified barrister who has a masters degree in the history of ideas. One thing even Shearer's critics acknowledge: he is no mug.
There cannot be many more academically qualified former footballers than Dowie and Ferris, and though in time – if this eight-game spell is a success – Shearer will bring in more obvious Newcastle figures such as Rob Lee, he has in the first instance shown an ability to recognise the differing talent of others and to delegate.
That is a start. What Shearer then brings to the Newcastle dressing room – any dressing room – is a personality that fills it (not the one who looks vaguely uncomfortable on Match of the Day) and inspires it.
As Sir Bobby Robson said when recommending Shearer for the post: "Alan will make a very good manager – he's got clout. Alan might not have any experience but he knows what the club is all about, he knows the supporters, he knows how they feel and he'd be dedicated to it."
"I got a call over the weekend off Derek Llambias [managing director] and Mike Ashley and I went round for a chat," said Shearer. "They asked if I would take charge for the remaining eight games and I asked for a little time to think and spoke to a few people. It's a club I love and I, like many thousands of people, desperately don't want the club to go down and I will do everything I can to try to prevent that. It's a tough situation and I feel deeply for this club. I believe I can help it along with the players. This is for an eight-game spell, I'm looking no further than that."
What Dowie brings is coaching experience. Dowie is known and trusted but his choice is proof of Shearer's sometimes unpredictable nature. In Ferris's case, there is vast experience of football and Newcastle United, for whom he first played as a 16-year-old in May 1982. As Gary Speed put it yesterday, what Shearer has already done is reveal his "common sense".
Speed, a former Newcastle team-mate, golfing partner and close friend, is not unbiased, but Speed describes the sudden Newcastle-Shearer development as "the best thing that could have happened at this time. Imagine what the atmosphere is going to be like against Chelsea on Saturday. That is down to one man. There is a lot of talk about experience and lack of it, but how do you get it? What I'd say is that management is about leadership and character and Alan has that. He is not the man you see on the telly, but then it's not just Alan Shearer who is restrained when on TV."
The Alan Shearer that former playing colleagues know is someone who was one of the lads off the pitch. Shearer has long been fully aware of his market rate, and has transformed the fabled sheet metal-worker's son into a multimillionaire, but while always at the back when it came to running exercises in training, Shearer was to the front when Newcastle players were having nights out on the Quayside and elsewhere.
However, unless you count decking Keith Gillespie outside a bar in Dublin on one Newcastle socialising trip as reckless, Shearer has managed to stay away from the more lurid headlines that afflicted footballers, several of whom were colleagues at Newcastle. Those who know him say the common sense kicks in. He is acutely aware that he is not just the "Al" his mates know, but the public figure who is Alan Shearer.
He understood this quickly. Given his ferocious match-defining abilities, Shearer could easily have got carried away in an era when celebrity culture was beginning to infect football, but he was aware from the earliest England and title-winning days at Blackburn Rovers of the weight of his opinion. Shearer's words can cause tremors like few others' in English football and that is one reason why he became set on hiding behind a device even he called "Shearer-speak".
Among friends that iron curtain comes down and as he wades into the water of management, with its press conference treadmill, Shearer will be expected to give away little pieces of himself. But it will be little by little.
And yet amid that caginess, there is a gambler – and a romantic – to add to the professional public figure and streetwise football man.
It is not just that Shearer has an interest in horseflesh that can lead him into the betting ring: when he made the two most important football decisions of his playing career, on each occasion Shearer shunned the favourite's option of joining Manchester United. In leaving Southampton in 1992, where he and Dowie overlapped for a year, Shearer famously spurned Alex Ferguson for Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn; in leaving Blackburn four years later, Shearer bought into Kevin Keegan's vision at Newcastle rather than, again, Ferguson's trophy parade at Old Trafford. This is not ruthless career progression, this is speculation.
And it went sour. Sitting alone with Shearer at St James' one day late in 1998, he reflected that, with Keegan's departure six months after his arrival, his first bad injury and then Dalglish's dismissal, he was not experiencing "the dream sold to me by Kevin Keegan". It was a difficult period at the club and the rumour of his imminent sale was unrelenting. His tone was downbeat. It felt that a wrong choice had been made at the end of Ewood Park and that the greatest striker of his generation, arguably the greatest English player of his generation, would go unfulfilled. Shearer's response to that notion was: "The club is unfulfilled, not just me. And I'm part of this club."
Although there were excellent Champions League days under Bobby Robson, a record number of goals for the club and an unforgettable testimonial night, that reply remains almost a Newcastle motto.
Shearer is now in a position to change that. But only if his impact is instant. There is a belief that due to the state Newcastle have got themselves into, Shearer is in a win-win situation even if the club is relegated. But a couple of losses soon change opinion. Shearer may be football-smart, possess common sense and natural clout, but this is still a gamble. It is another one featuring Newcastle United.
Where can Shearer pick up points?
The magic mark of 40 points is often touted as the watermark for Premier League survival, and with Newcastle lying in the relegation zone with just 29 points and eight matches remaining, Alan Shearer faces a big challenge. Home matches against Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Fulham have become must-wins, while anything from trips to Stoke, Spurs, Liverpool and Villa will be a bonus. Here's where points may come:
Sat: Chelsea (h) 0
11 April: Stoke (a) 0
19 April: Tottenham (a) 1
27 April: Portsmouth (h) 3
2 May: Liverpool (a) 0
9 May: Middlesbrough (h) 3
16 May: Fulham (h) 3
24 May: Aston Villa (a) 0
Who's who? Coaching staff
Iain Dowie Former QPR manager has been out of work since October. Now joins Shearer's coaching staff.
Joe Kinnear Appointed "interim" manager in November, before being asked to take charge until the end of the season. Recent heart surgery has clouded his future at the club; an executive role has been hinted at.
Chris Hughton First coach, then caretaker manager, before becoming assistant under Kinnear, Hughton has been in charge since Kinnear's absence. May now find himself back on balls, bibs and cones duty.
Dennis Wise Joined in January last year in a nebulous role Mike Ashley describes as Executive Director (Football). Contract takes him to the end of season – will he leave earlier?
Colin Calderwood Former Nottingham Forest manager joined club as first-team coach in January, but since February he has been helping Hughton manage the team.
Four finding it hard to manage
Several of Alan Shearer's England team mates at Euro '96, have flirted with Premiership management this season:
Tony Adams Just three months and 16 league games after succeeding Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth, he was shown the door as Pompey slid towards the bottom.
Gareth Southgate Successive finishes in the bottom half and a place in the relegation zone this season have led supporters to query Southgate's managerial capabilities, although chairman Steve Gibson has continued to pledge his support.
Paul Ince After surprisingly landing the Blackburn Rovers job last summer, Ince departed after just five months, leaving Rovers lying second bottom.
And not forgetting a great rival...
Roy Keane The Irishman struggled to adapt to life in the top flight following promotion, leaving Sunderland just 15 games into the season with the Black Cats struggling for consistency.